Nocturnal Animals Review

Posted: December 15, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Nocturnal Animals.jpgWritten by Daniel Simpson

When it comes to high profile filmmakers it tends to be their directorial career that typically defines their legacy. Orson Welles may have been known as a wunderkind of the stage and radio, but it is his directorial films that are probably most associated with him. More recently, John Carpenter has been experiencing a renaissance as a sort of cult musician, but he’s still gonna be remembered as the dude who made Halloween and The Thing. There are some exceptions to this. Clint Eastwood’s on-screen persona is perhaps more significant than his directorial career (both are staggering), but at least both of those aspects of his career are tied to film. It is in this regard that Tom Ford is unique. While his 2009 freshman film A Single Man was highly acclaimed and greatly regarded, Ford’s legacy is still undeniably that of a famed fashion designer than a famed filmmaker. As a fashion designer, Ford has established his own brand, famously saved Gucci from bankruptcy, and continues to work in the fashion industry today. His film career is really something of a side project. After seven years, Ford has finally returned to filmmaking with an interesting little thriller called Nocturnal Animals.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner living in Los Angeles. Susan is successful and wealthy, but finds she is doubting her newest work and is also questioning the strength of her current marriage. It is in this headspace that Susan receives a manuscript written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Edward has dedicated the book to Susan and has also titled it “Nocturnal Animals”, which is a nickname he had for Susan when the pair was married. The book is a violent story which involves a man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose family is attacked by a group of psychos led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Tony is assisted by a detective (Michael Shannon) who takes the case personally. The more Susan reads the more the book dominates her thoughts and simultaneously she begins to reconsider her life decisions as her marriage to Edward ended badly.

Nocturnal Animals is split into three distinct sections. The non-fictional present day stuff which follows Susan as she reads Edward’s novel, flashbacks that reveal the history of Edward and Susan’s romance, and the fictional story Edward has written. That’s an interesting structure and I also think it was necessary for this film. While the main romance at the center of the film and the fictitious story are both compelling in their own right, I don’t think either would be substantial enough to sustain its own film. What’s more is the various stories complement each other in some interesting ways. There are all sorts of parallels between Susan and Edward’s story and Edward’s novel and part of the film’s strength lies in these areas of overlap. It’s also interesting to speculate on what motivated aspects of his novel and what his intentions are. Is the violence experienced by Tony’s wife (who, like Susan, is a redhead) in the novel meant to act as some sort of vengeance against what Susan did to Edward? That’s what I was thinking at first, but as the film goes it seems to be more of an act of mourning. This question of motive also comes up during the film’s ending, which is seemingly very abrupt, but is appropriate and does tie in to the film nicely.

Interesting as a lot of this is, though, the actual story and major themes are very straightforward. Susan’s arc is remarkably clear early on and there isn’t really anyway twist on her character. Additionally, most of what Susan does in between reading Edward’s novel is kind of inconsequential. The scenes are interesting in the moment, but looking back on the film they don’t really matter. Perhaps most importantly though, I’m not sure this story ultimately amounts to much. It’s an engaging little yarn but it’s very straightforward and also a tad shallow. The film’s exploration of male weakness works pretty good, but other elements like failed marriages, a cynical detective tired of seeing evil go unpunished, and questions of who is the real bad guy feel a lot more standard and I don’t think the film brings much new to the table in this regard. These borderline clichés can be found in Edward’s novel and can be defended somewhat by arguing that the book is meant to be hokey, but ultimately I don’t quite buy that given how much of the narrative the novel takes up. More to the point similarly tired material is just as prevalent in the “non-fictional” aspects of the story as the “fictional”.

For all my criticisms of the content, Nocturnal Animals still executes very well. Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of the film is the acting, which is top-notch across the board. Amy Adams, having already done great work earlier this year in Arrival, delivers a wonderfully subdued performance as Susan. Her discontent is palpable from the most subtle of actions and Adams also handles the transition from a younger more romantic woman to an older and more pragmatic one very well. Perhaps Adams biggest accomplishment is the way she turns Susan into someone calculating and even harsh but also vulnerable. Jake Gyllenhaal also does really strong work in the dual role of Edward and Susan. The role of Edward plays to Gyllenhaal’s natural charm nicely but where he really shines is as the broken and regretful Tony within Edward’s novel. He doesn’t have a lot of lines, but his pain comes through very powerfully. Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivers what is easily his best performance yet as a really unhinged psychopath. He’s undeniably a sick bastard, but he’s also highly animated and watchable. It’s an over the top performance, but one that fits the tone of the film and works quite well. Great as all three are, I’m tempted to say the show stealer is Michael Shannon as a driven detective. Shannon isn’t doing anything radically different compared to his other performances, but he none the less inhabits the character perfectly and also does an amazing job balancing the character’s hardened exterior with some sly humour.

Tom Ford also continues to prove himself as a pretty formidable talent behind the camera. In addition to the excellent performances, Ford brings some really sharp visuals to the proceedings. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is uniformly gorgeous and also does a great job contrasting the hot landscapes of Edward’s novel with the cold, modern art look that defines Susan’s world. The film also has a really effective score that gives the film a really creepy vibe. You can also see Ford’s fashion background because man some of these cats are really well-dressed. Ford also injects the film with some interesting stylistic elements which stand out. The opening shot and ensuing scene in particular is very provocative. I won’t spoil it, but I will say I was shocked to see such a bold and strange opening in a major release awards contender and from that very moment I was hooked. It’s very Lynchian. In fact, I wish Ford had pushed these more surreal elements further. After such an abrasive opening, the rest of the film that follows, though well-crafted, is pretty straightforward. There are occasionally other provocative images (notably one involving a couch and some bodies), but nothing that really matches that opening.

Overall, I’m a little torn on Nocturnal Animals. The elements which work best are superb. This has some of the best acting I’ve seen all year and the craftsmanship is both pristine and stylish. Additionally, the things that don’t work about the movie aren’t really bad so much as they are a little bit lacking. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the film as a whole falls short of greatness. For all the cool elements, the film is ultimately very straightforward in its plot and themes. It is for this reason I can’t quite champion Nocturnal Animals as much as I would like to. Make no mistake though, I do recommend this movie, at least for any audience that can handle some darker material. This is also the film that I’ve been thinking about a lot since viewing and it might well raise in my estimation over time. For now though, I mostly just like it for the craft which brought it to life and that’s no small thing.

B+

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